AUSTIN, Texas -- Ben Howland made it way too easy.
The embattled UCLA coach was supposed to scratch, claw and fight for the remaining years on his contract and, perhaps, have his team -- a group of players assembled with the most hype this side of Kentucky -- ready to play, rather than resigned to play, in the NCAA tournament. But instead of playing like they were backed into a corner, the coach and his sixth-seeded Bruins decided to exit stage left, losing rather haphazardly to No. 11 seed Minnesota 83-63 in the round of 64 on Friday at the Erwin Center. Now the wonder around Westwood is whether Howland will be shown the door after 10 seasons.
That's been the speculation. Howland has certainly provided enough kindling to fuel the rumors with less-than-stellar NCAA showings since 2008, the last of three consecutive Final Four runs -- and this season, less-than-stellar results with what was the nation's second-rated recruiting class.
Then there was Bruins legend Bill Walton with the lighter fluid, squeezing it and the program for all they were worth on an ESPN broadcast back in February.
"I'm not in charge. If I were, things would be different,'' Walton said on air when asked by partner Dave Pasch about the program's laundry list of ills.
UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero has remained out of the fray, with a department spokesman telling ESPNLosAngeles.com earlier this week that Guerrero's schedule was packed ahead of the team's trip to Austin.
Now it has come to this. UCLA (25-10) is out of the NCAA tournament at the hands of a Minnesota team that had lost 11 of its previous 17 games. It's an embarrassing end for a Bruins program that made the tournament for only the second time in four seasons, and advanced to the round of 32 once in those two trips. Butler, VCU and the Ivys -- among many others -- have far surpassed that. In that time, Gonzaga has staked a firm claim as the West Coast's marquee program, a title once unquestionably UCLA's.
"No comment,'' Howland said Friday when asked about his future.
That future appeared to be on the minds of many, as the smattering of UCLA fans behind the Bruins bench gave Howland a longer-than-normal round of applause following the loss to the Golden Gophers (21-12). Howland said he didn't hear or notice the moment.
One Friday moment he did appear to notice, over and over, were the missed shots and opportunities.
"It kind of just snowballed,'' Howland said.
And now it appears that Howland has a snowball's chance in … well, Southern California. His contract runs through the 2017 season, and there's a $3.2 million buyout -- no small consideration for a cash-strapped public university. But attendance at the newly renovated Pauley Pavilion topped 10,000 five times this season, so the basketball program at least appears to have the potential to raise substantial revenue.
Dollars and cents were the furthest things from Howland's mind following the loss. Instead, the coach worked to pay homage to his team.
"I am really proud of this group of kids and really indebted to them,'' he said. "So coachable.''
Now UCLA just has to figure out who that coach will be.